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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
9. Rolling the Dice
Doc Halvorson had been a sanitary engineer with considerable experience in the architecture of technical buildings, and liked to make architectural drawings. He proposed that we work together on a package for NSF. He would draw plans for a modern building for undergraduate laboratory instruction. The top floor would contain a green house for growing the plants needed for teaching programs. The basement would contain animal quarters equipped for animals used in research. The open research laboratories on the intermediate floors would be equipped with closed circuit television, and the autoclaves, microscopes, and centrifuges required for experimental studies. Halvorson went to the University administration and secured a commitment to match every dollar that NSF would provide for a teaching lab building. The location of the teaching laboratory was to be approximately where the Medical School now stands. The price tag on the project was substantial for the times: about one million dollars per year for five years. To put this cost in perspective, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University dates to the same era and was built in a nearby campus area. The Krannert’s cost was initially projected at 14 million, though it eventually went considerably over budget.
My job was to describe the rationale for the new integrated biology program I used my mantra of the Cell, the Organism and the Population - that would be implemented with hands-on experience in the new facilities. So equipped with my rhetoric, Doc’s drawings, and the University’s commitment, we went to Washington and visited the NSF offices. We were warmly welcomed at NSF, by an enthusiastic bunch of program administrators who were aware of the educational challenge. They endorsed our proposal both structural and theoretical and offered us a choice. They said that we could take a check home with us to Illinois. However, they said, they would prefer that we do something else. The legislation making possible the building program in science education was due to expire at the end of the summer. The new pending Congressional bill for NSF was more generous than the previous one; it would provide funds not only for the building but also for the equipment necessary to make it fully functional. If the Illinois project were funded under the new bill, the University’s commitment could be used to furnish the building much more substantially. NSF wanted to use our proposal as a model for applications under the pending legislation.
Doc Halvorson asked for a little while to consider the choices. He said that he needed to go for a walk and think about the problem. He returned a half hour later and said that we would withdraw the proposal and resubmit it later for consideration under the new rules. Doc was a devout Lutheran, whose integrity was in fact the personal basis for the formation of the School; everyone trusted him to do the right thing. I didn’t think he would be willing to gamble with stakes like those involved with the lab building if the odds were poor. I don’t know with whom he might have talked during his walk, but he came back calm and assured. And mistaken. The new funding bill was voted down in Congress; NSF went out of the business of funding educational buildings entirely. Doc, and Illinois had lost a bet.